Friday, December 22, 2006

Our sacred obligation as mystery writers

From the New York Times:

As if mystery writers did not have enough to do just trying to come up with a good yarn, now they may have to worry about their readers’ psyches.

by Stuart Goldenberg

Mystery Appeal: Effects of Uncertainty and Resolution on the Enjoyment of Mystery (Media Psychology) Abstract Only

A new study finds that people with low self-esteem don’t seem to like it much when a story ends with a twist. In a whodunit, they like the “who” to be the person they suspected all along.

The findings appear in a recent issue of Media Psychology, and were prepared by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University and Caterina Keplinger of the Hanover University of Music and Drama in Germany.

Mystery writing, the authors note, is big business in the United States, with about three new books coming out a day. Their appeal is generally not in the depiction of a crime but its aftermath.

“Mystery deals with the solution of an enigma, especially with identifying who is guilty of committing specific, previously unresolved criminal acts,” the authors wrote.

For the study, the researchers asked 84 college students to read different versions of a short mystery titled “Murder Because of Lust and Greed?” (It may have lost something in translation from the German.) It tells the story of a businessman who is stabbed in his villa; the victim’s wife and his lover soon emerge as suspects.

In some versions, the main suspect proves to be guilty. In others, she does not. In still another, there is no hint given of who the killer is while the story unfolds.

Before the students read the stories, they were given psychological assessments. While those found to have low self-esteem did not like surprise endings, those with more self-confidence did. Both groups liked stories in which it was unclear who was guilty until the end.

“People whose self-esteem tends to be a little low,” Dr. Knobloch-Westerwick said, “they probably enjoy that little self-esteem boost they apparently get when they say, ‘I knew it all along!’ ”

1 comment:

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Dr. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick? Sounds like a Harry Potter villain.